Since his 2014 beginnings with the Sioux Chef, James Beard award-winning chef and cookbook author Sean Sherman has sought to showcase Indigenous food in straightforward, hyperlocal, and seasonal ways. He sees the Indigenous practices that he learned at an early age as being applicable to every facet of food and the ecosystems that sustain it.
“Our philosophy was taking away colonial ingredients,” Sherman says. “So no dairy, no wheat flour, no cane sugar, no beef, pork, chicken, and really focusing on what regionally, people were utilizing, and rebuilding Indigenous pantries to create all sorts of modern Indigenous recipes and moving forward, utilizing that same philosophy.”
Those Indigenous foods — prepared with the utmost simplicity, and designed to address the injustices of the current-day food system — have garnered Sherman a number of accolades for his work at Owamni (which will soon reopen after a fire in April). Now, he’s excited to expand this approach to other regions.
Sherman co-founded the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS) with Dana Thompson, and now, in partnership with NĀTIFS, he’s opening the Indigenous Food Lab Market at Midtown Global Market on Lake Street. (Thompson is no longer involved.) The first of its kind in the Twin Cities, Indigenous Food Lab Market will feature lunch and dinner options for dine-in or takeout, a hot tea bar, Indigenous-grown staple foods, frozen meats, and a bevy of Indigenous-made goods.
The hot bar offers contemporary Indigenous meals prepared fresh to order, including Dakota open-faced čhoǧíŋyapi sandwiches, a dish similar to a sope or huarache. Tacos and grain bowls will also be served, featuring protein options like bison, turkey, and whitefish. (There will be vegetarian options too.) Like Owamni’s menu, the food is free of ingredients brought to North America during colonization, so no pork, chicken, wheat flour, dairy, et cetera are present.
The hot tea bar offers chaga lattes, cacao drinks, and specialized herbal teas made from Indigenous ingredients developed by Francesca Garcia, the market’s herbal specialist.
“We have been really fortunate to build a really strong relationship with Hacienda San Jose, which is a chocolate maker that is based in Ecuador, as well as here in Minneapolis,” says market manager Jason Garcia. “Hacienda San Jose has a lab just outside of the city where they make some of their products, but all of their chocolate is single plantation-grown and direct trade. One of the cool things that we’re able to do is use them to source brewing cacao. So we’re making some drinks in our tea bar with that brewing cacao that is also for sale on our shelves.”
The market section features dozens of Indigenous vendor products, from pantry staples such as maple syrup and wild rice to lip balm. “We’re really excited that we carry a variety of products from the Red Lake Nation up in Northwestern Minnesota,” Garcia says. “They provide us with cultivated wild rice as well as harvested wild rice. Additionally, some products like maple syrup, and they do fruit syrups, as well as jams and jellies.”
The Indigenous Food Lab Market will also offer a Spirit Kitchen for Indigenous food entrepreneurs to test products, and an education studio to hold and record Indigenous cooking demonstrations and other classes on Indigenous culture and foodways. “The Indigenous Food Lab was born from realizing the need for not only working to create a better understanding of Indigenous foods, but to be able to do research and development around it,” Sherman says. “We want to create a really strong educational situation, so we can really focus on developing a lot of access to Indigenous education that’s really important. … We want to work with entrepreneurs to help them develop. We set up a space where they can do a menu takeover in the future.”
Overall, Sherman is proud and excited as to what the future holds for the Indigenous Food Lab Market, as well as NĀTIFS. He says conversations have taken place to see if this same model can be replicated in other cities — he’s been talking to potential partners in cities such as Anchorage, Alaska; Bozeman, Montana; Rapid City, South Dakota; and O’ahu, Hawai’i.
“It’s really creating something unique and special for our local community,” Sherman says. “So people will know where to go to find a whole bunch of really cool Indigenous food products. It’s going to be really fun to watch it grow over this first year. It’s something that we’re hoping that we can have some big ideas of how to help get smaller units of this market directly into tribal communities. This is planting a seed for what’s possible for Indigenous food access in the future. Our first market is just the beginning.”
The Indigenous Food Lab Market is holding a grand opening ceremony on Thursday, June 1 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Midtown Global Market, which will feature drum performances, appetizer versions of Indigenous Food Lab Market’s offerings, and opportunities to meet some of the staff and vendors. Regular business hours will be Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Disclosure: The writer, Ali Elabbady, has a friendship with market manager Jason Garcia.